Liberia, clinging to the West African coast between Sierra Leone and Cote d’Ivoire, was founded by freed slaves in 1847, as Africa’s first republic. The country that was supposed to serve as a model for other African states, however, has endured a troubled history. The Americo-Liberians, the descendants of the first settlers, ruled Liberia’s indigenous people with an oppressive and often violent hand. Those elites, based in Monrovia, governed the country for more than a century. Then, rallying troops with accusations of ethnic discrimination, Samuel Doe carried out a coup d’etat and killed then-President Tolbert in 1980.

Yet Doe’s rule was equally repressive and brutal. He favored his own ethnic group, leading to discontent, and killed several thousand citizens and opposition politicians. Increasingly angry with the Doe regime, Charles Taylor began drumming up support for a rebel army to seize power from Doe. In 1989, he entered Liberia from Guinea, marking the start of the civil war.

Though Taylor’s militias initially won support for their opposition to Doe, the fighting quickly degenerated into a bloody tangle of power struggles, atrocities, and international intervention. By the time a tense peace prevailed in 2003, after fourteen years of fighting, more than 250,000 people had died – one out of every twelve Liberians. The legacy of that war is clear: the literacy rate is only 60%, most of the country – including parts of Monrovia – lacks electricity and running water, and it is the third poorest country on earth in terms of per capita income.

Descriptions of Liberia largely mirror those statistics. Graham Greene, a British author who traveled though Liberia in 1935 and recorded his trip in A Journey Without Maps, wrote of the violence, disease, and poverty in the country, commenting that “the little injustices of Kenya become shoddy and suburban beside it.” In 2011, the literature I found online and in the news about Liberia looked much the same; it ranged from the merely grim to the all-out apocalyptic. My 900-page Lonely Planet West Africa guidebook, which gives Liberia a mere 20 pages, notes Liberia’s reputation as a “festering sore” on the African coast and claims it is “famous for rain forests, traditional masks, rubber plantations, and child soldiers.”
Today, though, Liberia is making strides in peace- and state-building. In 2005, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected as Africa’s first female president in elections deemed free and fair by the international community. Though a large NGO and UN presence remains in Liberia, the country is beginning to attract investment on its own, and Liberians are currently preparing for general elections in the fall. During my time in Liberia, my goal is to discover the human side to these descriptions of war and reconstruction. I hope that the writing on this blog reveals that Liberia is much more multi-dimensional than these narratives let on.

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